illustration (c) Josť Villarrubia 2000 digital 
illustration (c) Josť Villarrubia 2000
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The original stories of the "hero who could be you!"

Writer: Stan Lee
Artist: Steve Ditko
Trade Paperback
Published by Marvel Comics 1997
Reviewed by Pindaros

As the internet becomes an ever larger source for art and information, the primary concern in relation to youth culture has been whether too much information is availible to young people. It becomes difficult to remember that since the fifties the much more usual concern, at least for young people themselves, has been the possibility that there might be no media available that spoke directly to the social situations that were most familiar to them.

Through the seventies and into the eighties, television was monopolized by major networks in the US (and government networks elsewhere) which treated it as a medium for families, and movies were divided largely into movies for children and movies for adults. Magazines sometimes made an effort to reach youth, but the need for large circulation and sponsors would mean avoiding discussions of the sex, violence, family tensions and drugs that were the primary concerns of adolescents.

Thus it was the cheap media (radio, records and comics) that were left to exploit this market. When I was in my teens, in the recession of the late seventies and early eighties, the concern that was most hidden was the basic alienation of young people from the marketplace of culture. Given that even many adults were losing their jobs, the primary concern for us was what exactly we were going to do for ourselves given that we couldn't count on having money to achieve our goals. The answers came in the form of odd records, magazines and comics from places like London, New York and Los Angeles, and all fit under the heading of Punk. While the notion of "alternative culture" has replaced the economies of Punk with collegiate ideals of art and quality, the original appeal of books like WEIRDO and LOVE AND ROCKETS was the same as that of bands like Black Flag: they addressed the reality of being young at a time when the rest of the media were denying that we even existed.

"by the early sixties, a combination of greed and paternalism had turned the products aimed at [the youth] market into the blandest pap imaginable."

The youth of the early sixties had a similar problem although not through a lack of adults trying to sell them things. The rock and roll explosion of the fifties had exposed the size of the youth market to be serviced, but by the early sixties, a combination of greed and paternalism had turned the products aimed at this market into the blandest pap imaginable. The popularity of rock and roll was ascribed to an infantile response to rhythm and a feminine reaction to the attraction of "stars"; novelty songs and teen idols were offered to the children and girls who could not control themselves, while teenage boys were to clean up, get crew cuts, put on jackets and ties and get down to the business of winning the future for the American military industrial complex.

The existence of this Kulturkampf is plain enough today, but while popular histories are quick to recognize the roles of folk singers, civil rights marchers and the Beatles in the war against "adulthood," some comic books were also significant. Foremost among these was Marvel's SPIDER-MAN.

Marvel had already had remarkable success in the youth market since the debut of THE FANTASTIC FOUR. The combination of Jack Kirby's baroque response to the restrictions of the Code and Stan Lee's verbal sensationalism offered readers a comic book development on the radiation-driven monster movies of the fifties. Like those movies, Lee made sure to depict in broad outlines the ties of affection and family that the horrors of science threatened. Their work was thus extremely popular among high-school and college boys who were working out the psychological conflicts between the Atomic Age they were being trained to administer and the desires for wife and children that was supposed to make the technology meaningful.

Lee and his admirers have generally claimed that the success of this formula displayed a maturing of the superhero genre, as if the depiction of the Fantastic Four as FATHER KNOWS BEST with superpowers and the world's largest bank account is in some way the telos of the sequential art form. Nevertheless, Lee's fascination with writing about the "real lives" of people with superpowers is completely vindicated in the case of SPIDERMAN. Here the multiple identities of the protagonist managed to embody the complexities of teenage life with more accuracy and subtlety than any work in any medium except perhaps the song lyrics of Chuck Berry.

By the time Peter Parker was bitten by the radioactive spider that made him Spiderman, he already had at least three distinctive social roles. On the one hand he was a star science student whose teachers plainly envisioned a bright future for him in the Atomic Age. By the standards of the science heroes of DC and even the Fantastic Four, his life should have been relatively straightforward, as he carried out important work for his country and all of humanity.

Lee shows a certain revolutionary tendency in admitting that for an adolescent, the world of science could not keep the promises it was making about satisfaction in life. Among his peers, Parker is a social misfit, whose intelligence brings him no advantage in a world where looks and athletic prowess dominate. The accident which gives him superhuman strength actually serves to aggravate this situation, since he now needs to hide the strength that could reveal his new identity and must run away whenever danger appears in order to deal with the problem as Spiderman.

Beyond this, Parker has a completely different life with the elderly aunt and uncle who look after him. Here the youth finds himself in the paradoxical position of being both the little boy who the older people adore and fuss over and the young man who must find the resources to support the family as crises arise. The combination of newly-won independence and increasing opportunities has suggested, since the "teenager" first appeared on the social scene in the fifties, that this period is free of the financial and emotional difficulties that afflict the lives of adults. While this is true to some extent for many youth, no young people are completely without significant family commitments, and a good number have, as does Parker, all the responsibilities of a head of a household, without any concomitant improvement in their social status. Lee, as a child of the Depression who began to work full-time in his teens, seems to have inherently distrusted the news that the new prosperity had freed young people from responsibilities, and invented Peter Parker as a means of showing how easily the desperate, hard-working young man fit into the sixties as well as the thirties.

Thus, more than with any other superhero, it is no surprise that his accident causes Parker to create a new identity for himself. Indeed, within the first few stories, he has created two new identities, both to make money for his family. First Spiderman, and when his attempts to make money from this leads to his discovery "that with great power comes great responsibility," he eventually hits upon the idea of becoming a news photographer bringing in exclusive pictures of Spiderman bringing in criminals.

Parker is only the most advanced case of multiple identities among his friends. A girlfriend at the Daily Bugle turns out to have a secret life, and even Parker's social nemesis Flash Thompson turns out to have multiple sides to him, first as a soft-hearted youth who would be Parker's friend if Parker were not always racing past everyone in pursuit of one of his many goals, then as a sort of faux-Spiderman, whose appearance through jokes and pranks ends up protecting Parker several times.

The multiplexity of adolescent identity has become a common trope in a number of media, most recently and popularly in the TV show BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER. SPIDER-MAN thus stands at the head of an entire tradition of story-telling, and at a time when public opinion denied the possibility of such stories altogether. In many ways this early work was the high point of the title, from which it has descended to other climaxes that are dramatic but not as completely socially relevant.

"One can only imagine the possibilities had Lee dropped acid in 1966, realized that Aunt May needed to die and that Peter Parker needed to look for himself in the streets of counterculture New York."

While Lee had interesting insights into adolescence in the early sixties, the increasing experimentation in social roles during that decade confounded him as it did much of the rest of the comics industry. One can only imagine the possibilities had Lee dropped acid in 1966, realized that Aunt May needed to die and that Peter Parker needed to look for himself in the streets of counterculture New York. By the early eighties, when the status of adolescent superhero allegory had passed on to X-MEN, the true analogue to SPIDER-MAN was LOVE AND ROCKETS. As I've already noted, the problem for adolescents then was no longer that they lived multiple lives, it was trying to make clear to the rest of the world that the time spent in vans and vile basement nightclubs actually offered more interesting professional possibilities than a college education did.

The power of the early SPIDER-MAN stories is inconceivable without the art of Steve Ditko. A number of other artists have also managed to make Spider-Man their own, most notably John Romita, Todd McFarlane and Erik Larsen, but Ditko invented the visual language of Spider-Man: the web, the appearance of Spider-icons to indicate Parker's dual identity, the wavy lines of spider-sense, the contortions through which Spiderman makes his way around the buildings of New York. In addition, his mastery of facial expressions and body language provided a vivid picture of the impact that the weirdness of Spiderman and his opponents had on those around them.

THE ESSENTIAL SPIDERMAN, like other books in this series, is in black and white, although out of the "Essential" books I've read, this enjoyment of this book is least affected by this limitation. SPIDER-MAN has never been wildly dependent on color for its impact, and during Ditko's tenure this was even more true. Marvel has reprinted the early stories a number of times under different titles; in general, the garishness that results from reproducing the colors of a sixties comic with better inks and paper has taken away more from the reading experience than simply doing without color altogether.

In short, this is an "Essential" book whose content entirely justifies its name. The stories in THE ESSENTIAL SPIDERMAN are an instance in which there is no doubt that superhero comics are an important artform.

Strongly Recommended.

Pindaros is a Staff Writer for PopImage.

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